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Props for Preps

A new book traces Virginia's place in the preppy pantheon.

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Prep, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about a far more indelicate subject, may be hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

A recent Sunday wedding page included a photo of a beauty with a shapely, hour-glass figure, veilless and wearing a sleeveless and strapless gown. Her pose on the roof of a Richmond landmark was more “Xena: Warrior Princess” than blushing bride. Not prep.

An adjacent engagement announcement featured a head-and-shoulders portrait of a young woman wearing a white silk blouse and a strand of pearls. Yes, she and her fiance were products of prep schools. Her look was one of which grandmother would approve.

And according to Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd in the new book, “True Prep: It's a Whole New Old World,” grandmother is always “the true power behind the power.” They observe that “each family has one grandmother to which it traditionally defers and one grandmother it traditionally ignores.”

In a sometimes droll, sometimes hilarious but always spot-on deconstruction of what was once considered high Wasp behavior, Birnbach's 1980 classic “The Official Preppy Handbook” has been updated for the 21st century.  While some things have changed over 30 years (the economy has soured and fleece is acceptable), solid prep values still hold: Never fly first class, worn clothes — frayed khakis and cotton shirts — are just fine, and ugly furnishings “are excusable if they have been inherited or have an interesting backstory.”

Such standards are obvious to old Richmond and don't need pointing out, but while Birnbach and Kidd focus heavily on mid-Atlantic and New England locales, Virginians and Richmonders are woven into the narrative.

In the chapter on finance, “We Don't Talk about It: If you know what we're talking about,” the authors cite the James River and Jamestown as America's first naming opportunities: “Since then, practically anything can be named: a museum, a library, a hospital, a college, a road … or a lane in a new swimming pool.”

Two Virginians make the cut in the 77-person (living and dead) “True Prep Pantheon.” Bunny Mellon of Upperville is the 100-year-old widow of Paul Mellon, the philanthropist who endowed the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Historical Society. She was friend and White House garden adviser to Jackie Kennedy. The other Virginian is Tom Wolfe (b. 1931) a Washington and Lee University graduate who holds a doctorate from Yale (the book fails to mention his St. Christopher's School days) and practiced “the new journalism.” He has skewed the social order himself with such classics as “The Right Stuff,” “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

“True Prep” points out that less than one percent of the secondary school population actually attends boarding school, “where they live with their friends and their English teachers, their choral directors and their soccer coaches.” Lexington resident Sally Mann was among the few. The renowned photographer, whose work is currently on exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is a graduate of the Putney School in Vermont.

Virginia schools mentioned favorably include Woodberry Forest, which refers to “expelled” students as “withdrawn.” And in a number of references, it's made clear it takes brain power to enter the University of Virginia.

The most space devoted to any American school — or anything Virginian — is a section entitled, “Hampden-Sydney College: The Preppiest in America.” The authors swoon that James Madison and Patrick Henry were board members; that the college offers same-sex education; and that each student receives an etiquette book: “No other college in America places such a high value on good — no, exemplary manners.”

The book explains second marriages, child rearing and even funerals. And when it comes to sports, “we don't play football…baseball… basketball… We prefer sports that are clubby.” Hence the “True Prep” ode to fox hunting: “Hear the horn, galloping, jumping the low stone walls, a little frost on the ground, a little sherry in our bellies. … It's heaven. … There's no place we'd rather be than Fauquier County, Virginia.”

“True Prep: It's a Whole New Old World,” by Lisa Birnbach with Chip Kidd, is published by Alfred A. Knopf. $19.95.

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